Eleven months ago, I wrote ‘Thoughts…’ in response to a question asked by a friend: ‘Do you call yourself a Hindu?’
After much introspection, I had answered that question: ‘Yes, I do call myself a Hindu, when I do call myself anything.’
Today, my answer is different. I do not, will not identify myself with any religious label, not for any purpose. I do not base my identity on any religious beliefs or upbringing, nor do I wish to take on and live under a label. My religious beliefs are, at best, amorphous. I am interested in the dynamics, practices and mythologies of belief systems, and in observing their effect on people. But I do not believe as others do in a God, a Divine presence, in prayer, in puja, in rites and in rituals.
Religions, or belief-systems as I would prefer to refer to them, are rich in human experience, human wisdom. They are also rich in symbols. Understanding these symbols is important for a true understanding of any belief-system. Sadly, more and more of us are unable or unwilling to do so, and are taking literally much that is metaphor for a greater truth.
Religion divides and separates. He is Hindu, she is Muslim, that belief is Sikh, this is Jewish. Why do we let this happen? Why have we lost sight of the human spirit that runs through all cultures, all societies, everywhere on this earth? From the penthouses of New York and Mumbai to the forest dwellings of the tribes of eastern India, human beings are moved by the same passions. They love, they hate, they weep, they laugh. They have dreams and aspirations. They have their daily struggles. The details, of course, differ, but the fundamental emotions, needs and drives are the same all over the planet.
I am moved equally by the story of Jesus, the story of Karna, and by Shakespeare’s King Lear. Mortal men, all of them, great in their time, their lives ending in tragedy. I don’t know if Karna ever existed, or if a Lear ever walked this earth. All three stories are metaphors for aspects of human existence, aspects that all of us experience in part or in whole, in some degree or manner, during our own lives. Yes, we need such stories to live by. Each culture, each group of people even, has its heroes. But why must we make gods of them, and then go to war in their name? It makes no sense to me.
Sometimes what is called religion is often only a matter of birth, and of familiarity. I am more comfortable with the Hindu and Jain rituals that attend birth, marriage and death. I know I would prefer to be cremated, not buried, when I die. Ideally, I should be able to rise above such considerations. Maybe I won’t be able to. Yet that will not make me a Hindu or a Jain, not unless I am willing to let myself be so labelled. Which I am not.
All around me I see the selective use of Vedic, Brahmanical, Hindu thought and philosophy to condone and encourage exploitation and discrimination. In recent months, I have met people who have succeeded in turning that most gentle of faiths, Jainism, into a vehicle of anger and intolerance.
The terror attack on Mumbai, again in the name of God - that leaves me shaking with grief. Right now I don’t have the distance to be objective or the words to describe what I feel. Only one thought comes to mind, again and again - what kind of people are these, to have given themselves a faith and a god that lets them do such things? How low has mankind fallen? Perhaps the stories that tell of fallen angels - those stories were prophetic. We couldn’t read the metaphors. We still can’t.